FRIDAY, Sept. 29, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Consumers got an all-clear from U.S. health officials Friday to buy and eat fresh spinach again.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials said late in the day that all the affected brands linked to a nationwide E. coli outbreak had been recalled.
"Spinach on the shelves is as safe as it was before this event," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a teleconference, according to Bloomberg News.
Acheson said the tainted spinach all came from Natural Selection Foods, a San Juan Bautista, Calif., grower and processor that supplied many customers.
The company on Sept. 15 recalled all of its spinach products with use-by dates of Aug. 17 to Oct. 1. Four other distributors, all of whom got spinach from Natural Selection, have also recalled their products.
Health officials are still hoping to pinpoint the source of the contamination that has sickened at least 188 people in 26 states and Canada, killing one.
Acheson said they may never know the cause, Bloomberg reported.
As of late Thursday, 97 (52 percent) of the infected people had been hospitalized, 29 (16 percent) had developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremic syndrome, and a 77-year-old Wisconsin woman had died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Thursday, Natural Selection said it was taking steps to improve its food-safety inspections. The company also said it was ready to pay the medical expenses of consumers sickened by contaminated spinach.
Natural Selection processes fresh spinach for more than two dozen brands, including Earthbound Farm, Dole and Ready Pac. It hasn't been determined whether the spinach was contaminated at the company's plant, or on farms where it was grown in California's Salinas Valley, The New York Times said.
Tainted bags of fresh spinach found in at least five states have all helped pinpoint the E. coli strain. And at least two of the bags tracked back to one specific batch of fresh spinach processed on Aug. 15 at Natural Selection Foods' plant.
FDA officials had said last week that produce other than spinach grown in the Salinas Valley region was not implicated in the E. coli outbreak. They also said processed spinach, either frozen or canned, was not suspect.
And late last week, the FDA had said consumers could resume eating fresh spinach, as long as agriculture industry officials came up with a way to label the products that didn't come from the Salinas Valley.
Friday's all-clear appeared to lift that restriction.
The 26 affected states are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Wisconsin has the largest number of reported cases, and the one death. Two other deaths, in Idaho and Maryland, are still under investigation.
And the FDA announced earlier this week that Canada had confirmed its first case of E. coli O157:H7 in a person who ate bagged spinach.
In addition to the Natural Selection recall, the four other companies citing Natural Selection as their source of spinach, are: River Ranch Fresh Foods, which operates in Salinas and El Centro, Calif.; RLB Food Distributors, based in West Caldwell, N.J.; Pacific Coast Fruit Company, based in Portland, Ore., and Triple B Corp. in Seattle.
The primary symptom of E. coli contamination in humans is diarrhea, often with bloody stools. There are an estimated 73,000 cases of infection, including 61 deaths, each year in the United States, according to CDC statistics.
For the latest E. coli updates, visit the CDC..